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I finished a humanities Ph.D. about a year and a half ago, with an exceptionally unsupportive committee and dysfunctional department. I've had some short-term contract/freelance work since, but my search for more stable employment (including alt-ac and adjunct work) has really been discouraging, and I'm looking for some advice about my next steps.

Broad-strokes background: I pretty definitely chose the wrong institution, though I'm not sure I could have known that when I started my MA. Roughly half of the tenured/TT faculty turned over while I was there, and there was a period of almost five years when literally nobody in my program defended a dissertation. A lot of students in the program struggled with committee changes, bizarre faculty infighting, and generally weak advising—but they all had the benefit of least one or two solid faculty advocates. Even with a change of adviser halfway through the program, I really did not have that kind of support.

Health/disability issues played a role here. I was diagnosed with multiple health conditions in the first few years of my program, and disclosed those diagnoses to my committee. They were superficially supportive, but not genuinely understanding about my need for accommodations while my condition stabilized, and at times were actually quite cruel. (I have been advised, informally, that some of the comments my first adviser made about my "limitations," etc., probably merited legal action under the ADA.) Rather than recognizing this hostility as abusive or inappropriate, I definitely internalized it, and spent a long time believing that the problems I was having with my committee were my fault, because I was weak and lazy and screwing things up. (For the record, although I missed targets along the way because of my health issues, I ultimately completed the degree faster than most people in the program.)

What I didn't see because of this dynamic was that my (new) adviser and second reader were in some kind of battle to the professional death, and that they were trying to pull me in different directions because of agendas that had nothing to do with the content of my work. I also couldn't see that they were criticizing some elements of my work not because there were gaps in my argument, but because they were legitimately not grasping what I was doing with literature that was outside of their expertise. (My adviser was at least better than the second reader about acknowledging gaps in his expertise, and was never actively unkind.)

I'm obviously not going to claim that my dissertation is without faults, that I don't have room to grow as a researcher, or that I haven't made mistakes. But my outside reader—whose field aligns closely with mine—was quite enthusiastic about some sections/elements of the project that my committee dismissed. Other faculty who attended my dissertation defense expressed distress at the conduct of the second reader, and indicated that they thought that she had been unconstructive, needlessly aggressive, and had plainly misunderstood some of my central claims. I wouldn't dispute that I could have done some things better, but I am absolutely sure that I couldn't have done anything to really 'fix' the situation.

I emailed my adviser after my defense to express some concerns about the experience. He told me that he would consult with the chair, and get back to me. He also indicate that he'd give me some additional comments for the final revision before my filing deadline—but he didn't. After I filed the dissertation, I emailed my adviser to request a reference, and to ask if we could schedule time to chat about what I should do next. It has been ages, and I've gotten no response.

I don't necessarily expect my references to be glowing. But am I right in thinking that I am at least owed a response to a request for a reference? And, without that reference, am I correct in thinking that I have basically no chance of teaching again? I do have references from faculty in other departments where I worked as an adjunct/sessional lecturer, but they can't really speak to my research skills, and my feeling is that the lack of anything from my own department makes me professionally untouchable.

I'd be really grateful for any guidance you might have about how to push for a decent reference, or how to finesse the job search without one.

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I'm sorry that you had such a negative advising experience, and in particular that faculty at your institution were unsupportive (and worse) about your health problems.

As you say, you finished your PhD a year and a half ago. The good news is that you're well out of that highly unpleasant environment, and I hope you're experiencing the benefits of that. The bad news? Because of what you're asking, I really wonder what you've been doing professionally for the last year and a half.

I don't necessarily expect my references to be glowing. But am I right in thinking that I am at least owed a response to a request for a reference?

Yes, of course. I'm sorry that you even have to ask.

And, without that reference, am I correct in thinking that I have basically no chance of teaching again?

No, that's too strong. It would most certainly be better to have references from within your department, but that's not always possible. Sometimes the one reference from within your department would have come from your thesis divisor, but s/he died. Sometimes good people are not viewed well by their PhD-granting departments. It's not good, but it's not the end either.

I do have references from faculty in other departments where I worked as an adjunct/sessional lecturer[.]

Great, do that.

[B]ut they can't really speak to my research skills[.]

Well, good news: there are a lot of academic teaching jobs for which your research skills are largely to completely irrelevant.

[A]nd my feeling is that the lack of anything from my own department makes me professionally untouchable.

Can you get a letter from someone in your department, even if they are only superficially familiar with your research? That doesn't make a lot of sense logically, but psychologically it allows people to tick a box, so it could be helpful. If you can do that and get a strong recommendation from your outside reader, then I think your problems are pretty close to being solved.

Finally: please don't wait a year and a half wondering whether someone will reply to an email you sent. You should have checked in about ten times by now. Again, I am really sorry for your poor treatment: one of the worst aspects of being treated poorly is that it makes you expect to be treated poorly. That sucks.

  • Quite right: I do expect to be treated poorly (and, if I'm honest, feel on some level that I deserve poor treatment, even if that's not rational). Distance from my department helps, but as you surmise, I'm also pretty demoralized after a long stretch of scraping by on precarious low-level work, and by a fruitless job search. Reaching a point where my problems could be "pretty close to being solved" had started to feel like an impossibility, so I'm very grateful to you and @aparente001 for offering guidance and encouragement. I'll hope to post an update soon! – starfish May 23 '17 at 5:49
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We don't know if your advisor didn't respond out of passive-aggressiveness, or through a slip-up. I recommend you assume the latter and try again.

You can also try phoning or visiting during office hours or some time you think he's likely to be in. And/or leaving a message with the department secretary.

If you get clearer evidence he is intentionally ignoring your request, you can then approach the graduate program director and explain your problem. S/he should either arrange for a departmental letter of reference (as might be done if the advisor is not available to write a letter), or give your advisor a push.

If that doesn't get you anywhere, you can try going up the administrative chain of command.

There is an alternate approach, and I recommend you pursue it concurrently: take or audit a class from someone you think would be in a position to write a strong letter. You might do this at your home institution or somewhere else.

Aside from all that -- I hope you have lined up your outside reader for a letter.

  • I actually emailed the GPD around the same time as my adviser—he'd been my supervisor for a couple of semesters of teaching, and I figured he'd be able to speak to those skills. No response from him, either. – starfish May 22 '17 at 12:54
  • Sorry, hit enter too soon! I got no response from the GPD, which is not encouraging. But you're right: it may be an oversight, and it's possible that I'll get a reply after another try. I'm working on building a relationship with the outside reader, and he's been more supportive/responsive than anybody in my department. I hadn't been sure about using him as a reference, though, given that we've interacted only a few times. Would it be standard to request a letter under those circumstances? Thanks for your suggestions. I appreciate it. – starfish May 22 '17 at 13:04
  • Yes, you may ask your outside reader for a reference. Leave out the saga. // Sometimes email is not the best communication medium. I personally think it's too soon to involve the GPD, but when you're ready to put him or her in your sights, make an appt to meet and don't hesitate to avail yourself of the department's secretarial support. – aparente001 May 22 '17 at 13:35
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    Okay. Sorry. Let me clarify. I didn't mean you need to hide anything from the second reader. What he already knows, he already knows. Just write to him and ask him for a letter. Short and sweet. // You've been through the mill and it's understandable that by this time you would naturally think everything through in all possible permutations and ramifications. So I'm telling you my objective opinion, based on what you've laid out here: it's fine to simple write to the second reader and ask for a letter of recommendation. I do appreciate that it will take courage on your part to write a... – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 0:40
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    ... short email to this person. However, just as negativity breeds anxiety, you will find that positivity and straight dealing breeds confidence. // Please don't forget to post an update when you have some news. – aparente001 May 23 '17 at 0:41

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